‘I’m shocked’ Lynda la Plante opens up on hitting 80

Steph’s Packed Lunch: Lynda La Plante accidentally swears

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Tour de force Lynda la Plante turned 80 on Wednesday and while she admits that the landmark birthday was not particularly welcome, the legendary writer embraced it. “I’ve reached 80 but I feel more like 50,” she says. “All my friends are around my age and we’re going strong.”

The bestselling crime author of no fewer than 40 novels – as well as the hit TV series Prime Suspect starring Dame Helen Mirren, says, “I can’t say I was looking forward to it. No. I was a bit shocked really as it kind of creeps up on you!

“But there’s this slew of incredibly old actresses treading the boards these days, wonderful Glenda Jackson doing King Lear at 86. My actress friend Ann Mitchell from Widows never stops working and was brilliant in the BBC series The Gold and she’s 83. And it’s like, we’re the new 50s. I’m having the time of my life.”

At a glitzy publishing industry party thrown for her last week it was announced that Lynda’s memoir will be published next year promising to “amuse, awe and inspire”. But her birthday celebrations were more low-key.

She smiles, “My son Lorcan took me out for a surprise dinner because either side of my birthday, I have parties and events being held for me so I needed a breather from it all as the partying never ends!”

Looking slightly horrified at the suggestion of retirement, she says, “I don’t know what I’d do with myself. I’ll keep writing until I drop off this earth as long as the readers still want me. Because I’m still learning new things all the time. I love it, it’s very exciting, it occupies my brain.”

She adds, “I think mental health is absolutely connected to my work. Writing keeps you very mentally alert.”

Which is good news for her millions of fans worldwide. Opinionated, funny, curious, the creator of Prime Suspect is still in full command of her craft and her latest detective Jack Warr returns in a fourth novel Pure Evil later this month.

One of the fiction hits of lockdown, her first Jack Warr thriller Buried, spent nine weeks on the Sunday Times bestseller list as did follow-ups Judas Horse and Vanished.

She reveals, “I think this is one of the best ones I’ve ever written and is about a nightmare psychopath and it’s very dark.

“Sometimes when I’m working if someone walks in the room, I am so deep down somewhere, I will shoot off my seat in shock because I’m so far gone! When I’m working, I’m energised, talking, being the characters, I’m laughing, crying, I act it out.”

She works closely with the police and says,“Nothing leaves me before the police and forensics have ticked it off. Sometimes it’s really annoying! The book will come back and they say, ‘No, you can’t have that in’,” she laughs.

Lynda is truly crime fiction royalty. All her books are international bestsellers. Success has bought her a mansion in Kingston, south-west London and she has managed to maintain her position as Queen of Crime for almost four decades.

So what is the secret of her success? Discipline for starters.

She says briskly, “I am always up at six, and I work consistently. I will have a weekend off occasionally but on the whole, I duck and dive every day.

“I am always writing one book and editing it, and researching the next one. They cross over. Each book takes about a year.”

“Plus I am always one step ahead of the reader and I spend ages working that plot out. It’s very difficult to get something that you haven’t seen or read before. Also I love characters, my books have so many of them, and are often based on people I’ve met.

“I’m not so interested in the psychopath or what they’ve done. What I want to know is: How do you catch him or her? What’s the trail they’ve left? The clues and the forensics.”

Details are crucial. She admits, “Sometimes when I’m working on a book, I wake up in bed and go, ‘Ah I missed that at this point, he has got to go back and find the nail varnish!’ It’s no wonder I’m an insomniac and don’t sleep.”

Lynda is adamant the dark world of crime and murder doesn’t affect her. “I’m able to lift it with humour,” she says.

Plus, “every novel written is a learning curve” – and that’s what really drives her.

She believes the perennial fascination of crime fiction is simple, and says, “I think it’s the puzzle. Unlike reality, true crime, there is no ending. It’s not over. Ever. The pain goes on. With a crime novel, you have an ending and it finishes. But between that, a lot of people really enjoy trying to beat the writer; they think they know who did the crime, and so the game commences.

“When I was a child I didn’t write stories as it was quite a while before they realised I had dyslexia, my father even kept one of my notes in his wallet to show people how bad my spelling was. But I loved story telling and had such a memory. You only had to tell me a story once and I was off. I loved Little Women and Jane Austen.”

Born in Liverpool, she was 15 when she trained for the stage at Rada alongside Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt and worked with the National Theatre and RSC before becoming a television actress.

She then turned to writing in her 40s after being exasperated at the limited roles available for female actors – and made her breakthrough with the successful TV series Widows and Prime Suspect in the 1990s. Widows was then adapted for the big screen by director Steve McQueen in 2018.

Her most famous creation, the iconic DCI Jane Tennison continues to be popular with readers with Lynda writing a prequel series based on her back story. The eighth novel Dark Rooms came out last month in paperback and the ninth, Taste Of Blood, will be published in August.

She reflects, “Jane’s always been the favourite with me. It’s been a delight shaping her character and writing her life up to the point where she takes over that murder inquiry in Prime Suspect. I am working on the last one, before she steps in. In two books time, I will close the door on her for good which will be strange. You kind of live with your characters.”

Lynda says she used to write in a cottage in the grounds of her south-west London home, but now works in her study as her student son Lorcan, 19, and his girlfriend Dominique live there with their “lunatic” whippet Pluto.

La Plante became a mum at 59, after many years of fertility treatments, going through the menopause at 32 and a divorce, when she adopted Lorcan as a six-month-old baby.

She smiles, “Without hesitation, it was the best decision of my life adopting him. He is a very special boy, and I adore him. It’s terrific to have that young energy around the house.”

Lynda has written and produced over 170 hours of international television and in the past she has spoken of her hurt over ITV’s treatment of her first Prime Suspect prequel, Prime Suspect 1973 featuring the young WPC Jane Tennison, in 2017.

Significant changes were made to the plotline, and she said that producers rejected “every single actor I wanted” during casting. “It was very frustrating.”

“A young Florence Pugh came in and I earmarked her and said, ‘I think she’s very exciting and has got something’. And they said, ‘We don’t really like her very much’.

“I swore I wouldn’t go back into working with the networks but now I’m working on a TV series for Netflix.

“We’re just in the contract stages for the book that I bought. I read it, loved it and bought the rights. It’s an area of police work that has never been done before.”

Swimming in her pool every day and walking her enormous dog Hugo, a Borzoi, in Richmond Park keep her fit. She says,“If you can move, physically move, and try and eat and drink sensibly it helps. I do like a pink gin and tonic though.”

Her pet brings her great happiness but he was in and out of surgery for months for a punctured lung when he swallowed pampas grass.

“I cannot believe this dog has created so much emotion in me. All the dogs I’ve had in my life, nothing compares to this one creature – he’s the size of a donkey but so gentle, and so loving,” she says.

At 80, she looks great and brims with joie de vivre, “I’m from Liverpool and it’s all about the glamour,” she says.

“I feel undressed without my make-up on. If you care for yourself, others will care for you too. When I am with my sister or a friend, and they complain, ‘I am getting so old’, I just think: What do you mean? Once you start thinking like that, you are simply ageing yourself.”

  • Pure Evil, the new Jack Warr thriller, by Lynda La Plante is out on March 30 (Zaffre hardback, audio, ebook).

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